As the risen Christ unexpectedly leaves the disciples and ascends to heaven from the Mount of Olives, one might have expected them to feel some measure of sadness at the parting of their beloved Lord. St. Luke, however, describes it differently:
“They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52).
What a change from just weeks earlier when they were in despair, confused, and fearing for their own lives as Jesus was being led to the cross.
While the disciples were generally loyal, devoted, and trusting, they did not always understanding Jesus’ teachings and use of allegory, particularly with respect to his mission to suffer, die, and rise again; their expectations of the Jewish Messiah were quite the opposite (see Mark 8:31-33).
Jesus knew that he had to prepare the disciples to understand and embrace his mission. A clue that reveals his strategy comes from the Transfiguration. The divine nature of Christ had just been visibly revealed to Peter, James, and John as well as the affirmation of the Divine Sonship by the voice of God Himself. Yet, Jesus ordered the three not to reveal what they had seen and heard to the other disciples until after his resurrection (Mark 9:9). They were surely confused by this.
Jesus knew that there was no point for them to report what they had experienced until it was given its proper context and meaning, and this would not happen until the resurrection. The resurrection represented that crucial piece of the puzzle that was necessary for the whole picture of Christ’s mission to be fully understood by his followers.
They would hang out in the Cenacle (“upper room”), sometimes with the risen Jesus, exploring the many references to him in the Hebrew scriptures. As the disciples embraced the triumph of Christ’s resurrection and the redemptive purpose of Jesus’ suffering and death, they could only react with joy upon seeing him return to heaven. The reign of their Lord over the heavens and the earth had been established.
As they grilled fish together on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the risen Jesus asked Peter three times, “do you love me?”; answering yes, Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep”. Jesus then responds by acknowledging that Peter has matured:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).
Jesus is referring to spiritual growth and understanding. He uses the same clothing metaphor just before he ascends:
“And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
St. Paul was indignant when he learned that a number of members of the Church of Corinth did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Paul chastises them harshly, arguing that if there was no bodily resurrection, then Jesus could not have been raised from the dead and they’re wasting their time:
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (I Corinthians 15:19).
It was only until the disciples could fully understand that Jesus’ suffering was a conquest of sin and the resurrection a triumph over death, that they could be witnesses to these truths. By the time of the Ascension, they were prepared to receive power through the Holy Spirit and communicate that message to the world. And they were overjoyed.